The Blues

Each year, the admissions office here at St. John’s runs five week-long summer sessions for high school students, called Summer Academy. Each session includes classes with St. John’s tutors (our form of professors), as well as fun activities and field trips to area museums and cultural attractions. Students get to live in the dorms, eat in the dining hall, and experience a slice of college life at St. John’s.

Classes each session are much like the classes St. John’s students experience during the fall and spring semesters: small, discussion based, and focusing on original works. Each session is grouped around a theme. Some themes are perennial favorites, but each year our tutors also come up with some that are entirely new. One example is this year’s third session, which will focus on the Blues. I recently spoke with two of the tutors who designed the curriculum for this session, Mr. Heikkero and Mr. Kingston, to get some more insight into what The Blues will bring.

Like all Summer Academy sessions, the readings for The Blues are drawn primarily from our undergraduate reading list. Du Bois, Douglass, and Lincoln are read in senior seminar, while “Stomping the Blues” has been featured in a preceptorial (an elective taken by juniors and seniors). The impetus for this particular session, however, originated in a discussion among the entire St. John’s community.

“We had a really successful all-college seminar on [“Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin], and Mr. Heikkero thought it might be a nice center piece for a summer academy session in conjunction with the DuBois reading that is currently on the senior seminar reading list,” Mr. Kingston notes. “DuBois uses the African-American musical tradition as a centerpiece in his argument about the relationship between American Democracy and the suffering of African-Americans in the United States….[he] points to the “sorrow songs,” by which he means the African-American spirituals that were gaining wide attention and popularity in the late 19th century, as a way into understanding the relationship between slavery, Christianity, economics, and race in America.”

From there, the rest of the curriculum began to take shape. “In [Stomping the Blues], Albert Murray takes the idea of the “sorrow song” and develops an account of the aesthetics of the “blues idiom,” by which he means African-American improvised music, such as jazz and be-bop, that evolved out of the blues tradition in America. It seems to me that Murray sees the blues as a secular version of the “sorrow songs” that DuBois wrote about at the turn of the last century,” says Kingston.

Overall, Mr. Heikkero says, students who attend this session “can expect a combination of thoughtful reading and thinking with passionate music…the music tutorials [will be] highly engaging with an excellent lineup.” In conjunction with Stomping the Blues, students will study works by a variety of musical artists in the blues tradition, from Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Charlie Parker to Louis Jordan, James Brown, and Ray Charles, works that Kingston calls the “greatest American contributions to the history of human achievement.”

Both tutors are excited to embark on this journey with Summer Academy students. Heikkero relishes the chance to “spend time with thoughtful young people who are eager to explore,” and Kingston agrees, lauding “the energy and good will with which [Summer Academy students] take on exciting, difficult, provocative, and potentially transformative works.” In addition, as with any class at St. John’s, Summer Academy students will be “engaged in one of the most important undertakings any individual can pursue, which is the pursuit of self knowledge…in Summer Academy, we are not going to tell you what to think, but we can show you how to ask the most important fundamental questions as a way to begin to know yourself.” This particular session, Heikkero adds, will give students and faculty alike an opportunity to “think about American themes, and to look into the human condition—its darkness, light and its blue twilight.”

 

Limited spaces remain in this and other Summer Academy sessions; find out more and sign up here.

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